In a recent panel at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE, the prolific blogger of the Egyptian Revolution, Sultan Al-Qassemi, talked about a new-McCarthyism that was spreading across the Arab world. The more liberal parts of the Gulf Region (UAE,Qatar,Kuwait, Oman) have now (in many ways) are taking giant steps backward on the road to democratization. Social media which was once filled with the Tweets of democracy and revolution are now filled with the sounds accusation and counter-accusation. Anything less than total support of the ruling regimes is considered treason and dissent can lead to threats, insults and in some cases arrests.
This can clearly be seen in the example of the United Arab Emirates. To understand governance in the Gulf Region, you have to understand the Arab idea of the majlis. Majlis simply means tent, but it is much more than that. The concept is that the tribal leader, sheikh, is responsible for the welfare of his people. Not only is it a social obligation, it is a religious obligation under Islam. Any member of the tribe was allowed to directly petition the leader of the tribe with whatever grievance they might have. If the ruler was unjust, the ruler’s family and the people had the right to replace him. This system worked pretty well right up until the independence of the countries in the region. Most have been independent just over 30 years. Over that time, countries like the UAE have moved from a small-scale, village subsistence and small-time trading society to fully-developed economies many of them highly dependent on the export of oil. Good leaders, such as the UAE’s Sheikh Zayed managed to bridge the gap between the old system and the new. However, as the population has increased and development exploded, even a big-tent majlis, like Zayed’s, could no longer cope. The UAE’s Federal National Council was designed to be the answer to the problem. With only 40 member, the council is composed of 20 members who were appointed by the government and 20 members who are to be elected by an extremely narrow electorate. Only 6,689 emiratis out of population of just under one million are allowed to vote. It would be difficult to call the FNC experiment a success. With no real authority to make law and frequently finding itself at odds with official government positions, the FNC has done little to further democracy in the UAE. These issues recently prompted Professor Nasser bin Ghaith and several other emiratis to publish their dissent and criticism of the UAE’s rulers online. As of the writing of this article, bin Ghaith, and the others are still being held by the police without charge. Their whereabouts and condition are unknown. A call to explore parliamentary democracy and open political discourse in the country seems to have caused their disappearance. Unlike under McCarthy, you don’t even get a witch-trial.